Happy little learners

Teaching through topics is back. Clare Dwyer Hogg visits a primary school where the traditional timetable has been torn up - and pupils are discovering an appetite for learning

Subject divisions are nowhere to be seen; instead of sitting down to a geography or history lesson, primary children find their subjects integrated under one broad heading. Be it chocolate, treasure, or fashion, their landscape of learning is looking different from what might traditionally be called "school". Called International Primary Curriculum (IPC), it is a common way of teaching in international schools, but one that is increasingly being piloted around this country.

Now the first primary school in London, the Sir William Burrough school in Tower Hamlets, has introduced it. Praise and criticism has been tossed at the approach in equal measure, but Ofsted has commended the school. Yet is it just a case of throwing out the science books and ripping up the history lessons, or is it a radical methodology?

The origins of the IPC lie in the Shell petrol company. Martin Skelton, a former headmaster, was commissioned by the company to create a curriculum for Shell International schools. He had to develop something that suited a high turnover of students who, under the national curriculum, were missing out on swathes of work if they moved from one school to the next.

Soon all Shell schools were working under a topic based system called Shell Primary Curriculum. This was the germ of the IPC, which is now independent from Shell. But what, you may ask, makes a programme developed for the children of Shell employees applicable to students more generally?

"First," says Skelton, "it was clear to us in traditional education that there is too much focus on teaching, not learning." He and his team considered three standards important: academic, personal development and "international mindedness".

The third is something of a buzz-phrase; it is considered as key as the other aims, and forms a substantial amount of the theory behind the system.

Skelton and his team say they are trying to prepare pupils for the world of work, no matter how far away that seems. "When our five-to-11-year-olds get into the workplace, they will need the ability to change, and to be internationally minded," he says.

The teaching formats were developed with close attention to how emotional states link with learning. "When the brain is stressed, it doesn't learn, but when it's engaged, it does," he says. "We had to look at what learning is, and what styles of learning help information get into the brain."

The new approach, he says, is challenging the one-size-fits-all attitude that traditional schemes of work depend upon. The theory is that teaching through topics provides a creative system that opens up learning. The core subjects - science, mathematics, history, art, language, geography, and more - are taught through topics, each one lasting two to six weeks.

Some educators remain unconvinced. Nick Seaton from the Campaign for Real Education is firmly opposed. "Dividing knowledge into subjects helps to compartmentalise them in children's minds," he says. "Therefore if subjects are divided in the mind into a learning structure, children will remember in which lesson they learnt it. It helps to teach them to think rationally and in a structured way."

Topic-based lessons are much more risky, he thinks. "Expert opinion has it that once the curriculum moves from subject into topic, a lot of content gets lost," he says. But this is not Seaton's only bone of contention. One of the features of IPC is an "off the peg" teaching programme which gives teachers already formulated lesson plans. This can take away the professionalism of teachers, he says.

Skelton replies that it took his team three years to write the IPC - "with hundreds and hundreds of examples of best practice, carefully written, that give teachers the best guidance possible" - but that they never claim that a curriculum is the finished article, solely responsible for learning.

"A good curriculum is more like the back-up crew to Michael Schumacher than Schumacher himself. This was the problem with the National Curriculum," he says. "It was, or is, only as good as it is mediated by teachers."

The head teacher of William Burrough School, Avril Newman, is a convert. "I don't think we could have integrated the National Curriculum to the standard and quality that the IPC have done for us," she says. "They've done the work for us and all we need to do is deliver it." For this, however, there is a fee: a one off payment of £8,000 for the package (which can be paid in instalments), and £500 every year after that.

The money comes out of the school budget, and the fee is slightly discounted by vouchers provided by the e-credit scheme which the Department for Education and Skills has set in place to encourage computer literacy. It is still a considerable sum, but one which she's willing to defend. "They cheer when we tell them what the next topic is going to be," she says. "The children cheer. Now, I've not seen that or heard that in the whole of my teaching career."

The "for" and "against" camps for IPC are clearly defined, but there are other schemes that are less controversial because they use topic-based material written by the teachers themselves. One of these - called Opening Minds - has been developed Royal Society for the Arts (RSA) on the grounds that the National Curriculum was struggling to equip young people adequately for adult life in the new century.

The RSA considers that certain skills - or competences - are essential to a curriculum. These include learning, managing information, relating to others and citizenship. Its pilot, which took place in secondary schools, but now includes some primary and middle schools, seeks to address this through topic-based learning.

"Often year seven is rewritten," says Lesley James, the head of education at the RSA. "A consistent point is that behaviour improved. We think this is because students are interested: project work is interesting and links subject content. Sometimes they're not aware of what subjects they're doing. That is, of course, what traditionalists fear."

Unlike IPC, the RSA has not gone down the road of producing off-the-peg schemes of work. It prefers instead to let the schools develop their own bespoke approach.

The key to the RSA is the interactive style of learning. The idea is that education should reach further than facts and figures: this is, of course, the aim of the National Curriculum too: the Government recently launched a programme for excellence and enjoyment in learning, with emphasis on the individual. But agitators for change call for an evolution nationally in how schools present information for their pupils. Whether the Government accepts this will determine how many schools begin to pursue their own way of doing things.

The comprehensive where attendance has improved and exclusions have decreased

Six compulsory projects have replaced traditional lessons for first-year pupils at Eltham Green, the 1,000-pupil comprehensive that provided the inspiration for John Cleese's film Clockwise. The traditional timetable has been abandoned in a revolution inspired by the Royal Society of Arts. In has come a series of projects for 11- and 12-year-olds to replace subjects such as history, geography and technology. The pupils are enjoying it, the school has been praised by Ofsted and the new approach appears to be working. Attendance has improved, exclusions have decreased and pupils are making bigger strides in improving their reading standards. Moreover, the number of children going to sin-bins has fallen to zero and the referral unit has been closed. Under the new approach a project called Roman Around replaces history. Pupils spend time visiting local sites of historic interest, which can give them an insight into Roman times in the neighbourhood. Instead of conventional music lessons, pupils do a Making the Band project that features music but also contains exercises in how to budget for gigs around the country, to develop business skills.

Sport is an important project because the school is now a specialist sports college. In collaboration with Sport England, the pupils undergo a series of fitness checks to find out how healthy they are and what sports would suit.

The programme called Opening Minds is designed to tackle the problems pupils have in making the transition from primary to secondary school. Too often pupils slide back in their first year of secondary school. Ofsted reckons this happens to around 30 per cent of pupils.

According to an RSA report last week, a similar picture is emerging from the other 50 schools in the scheme. Literacy levels are improving and schools are reporting that their pupils are more motivated to learn and engage in less low-level disruption.

Richard Garner